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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, by         Recitation by Author     Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

"The Prisoner of Zenda" by Richard Wilbur employs wit, irony, and metatheatricality to explore themes of duty, morality, and the tensions between personal desires and societal expectations. Based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Hope, the poem recapitulates the moral dilemma faced by Rudolph Rassendyll, played by Stewart Granger, who must renounce his love for Princess Flavia, portrayed by Deborah Kerr, to maintain the integrity of the throne. It does so with a lighthearted yet penetrating humor that enriches the reader's understanding of both the characters in question and the broader societal norms they represent.

In the poem, Rassendyll and Flavia face a heart-wrenching decision: to prioritize their personal happiness or the welfare of the kingdom. Their choice leans towards the latter, reflecting a moral code deeply ingrained in their roles and in society at large. Wilbur's tongue-in-cheek comment that "it would be poor behavia / In him and in Princess Flavia / Were they to put their own / Concerns before those of the Throne" captures the ethical underpinning of their actions. They sacrifice personal happiness for the sake of a higher, albeit imposed, moral duty. The rhyme of "behavia" with "Flavia" adds a sense of frivolity to the solemnity of their decision, illustrating how the plot, despite its moralistic undercurrents, remains intrinsically theatrical and somewhat arbitrary.

The line "Why can't they have their cake / And eat it, for heaven's sake?" encapsulates the audience's longing for a fairy-tale ending where duty and desire coalesce. But Wilbur nudges us to consider that it's "hard to quarrel / With a plot so moral." The public, while sympathetic to the couple's love, also finds virtue in their sacrifice. This reflects a collective moral consciousness that values duty over individual happiness, underlining how societal ideals can seep into our personal expectations and judgments.

The poem culminates in a slyly ironic twist. Stewart Granger, who plays Rassendyll, also portrays the reformed King, who "has learned through suffering / Not to drink or be mean / To his future Queen." The dual role serves as a metaphor for the different facets of human nature-duty and desire, austerity and indulgence-that coexist within us. Here, the same actor embodying these contrasting roles suggests the internal conflicts we all face, making choices that echo into our personal and public lives. It subtly brings to light the duality inherent in social roles and individual identities, as well as the struggles that often accompany the moral decisions we make.

The rhyme pattern in The Prisoner of Zenda" adds a distinct layer of nuance and complexity to the poem. The rhyme scheme is generally AABB, which lends the poem a singsong quality that juxtaposes well with its serious thematic considerations. This allows the reader to engage with the poem on two different planes: one of lightheartedness and another of contemplation. Moreover, is not just a stylistic choice; it serves multiple functions. It accentuates the tension between the thematic gravitas and the metatheatrical humor; it mirrors the limitations that societal expectations impose on individual choices; and it creates a resonance that lingers, much like the enduring questions the poem poses about duty, morality, and the human capacity for dual roles and conflicting desires.

In "The Prisoner of Zenda," Richard Wilbur masterfully blends humor, poetic form, and profound commentary. The poem emerges as more than just a retelling of a classic narrative; it becomes a thoughtful exploration of the human condition, captured within the confines of societal norms and personal dilemmas.

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